Leadership in Times of Challenge and Controversy

Good morning everyone,

I thought it would be a good time to send the first blog post of 2015 as we begin the last week of January, which for many of you that know me well, is the longest month of the year (in my opinion). Both for duration of calendar days, but also because the days typically in the north are shorter of daylight, colder, and harder on many people than we might think or admit to ourselves at times. But this last week of January also represents a bit of a hump; that we have made it through potentially the coldest month of the year, days becoming longer, the end of first semester at secondary and the beginning of the report “card-itis” syndrome that becomes a part of the elementary reality as well.

Over the past few months the Keewatin-Patricia District School Board has been involved in several very significant, and not-for-the-faint-of-heart situations, that needed both addressing and firm resolve to take them on, and to bring them to forward. These challenges have not been matters suddenly appearing out of nowhere, but rather simmering for years. While not alone in the sense that the recent NorWOSSA sanctions involved all of our secondary schools and athletic departments, they most directly put the community of Kenora and our six schools in the area in the direct spotlight, and under intense scrutiny. It has not been easy for the staff of Evergreen, King George VI, Keewatin, Valleyview, and Sioux Narrows Public Schools; and it certainly has not been without effect for all staff at Beaver Brae Secondary School.

Martin Luther King Jr. stated in1959 that “the ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” While Dr. King referenced man, the symbolism of his comments really are not gender-specific. As you read the next few paragraphs, please consider the power of its meaning. It is relatively easy to lead when times are smooth, the future certain and when struggles or challenges minimal, or even non-existent. However, when adversity shows itself, and tough and difficult events face you every day, (at times unrelenting) how we act, and how we respond is indeed the mark of us in KPDSB.

Events in recent weeks have tested us, as an organization, and some of us personally, as we were forced to respond to statements made in the media and in public forums, unwarranted and as I have termed them “indiscriminately and from the hip”. But those who have challenged us, and attempted to denigrate our staff in the media circles have failed; plain and simple they have failed to diminish the work that staff do every day, in every school, in every one of our communities. I mention this not to raise ire, but rather because over the last few weeks, I have received hundreds of supportive emails and calls from you as staff and community members indicating that our beloved KPDSB is indeed strong, and firm in its unconditional support of each other. And as we enter a new era of reasserting our system, our goals and actions needed to achieve our goals, there is feeling that with staff working together whether it be Sioux Lookout, or Dryden or Kenora, we are absolutely a formidable lot. As a powerful example yesterday, Sunday, January 25th, a Kindergarten Symposium kicking off Kindergarten registration week (and not just in Kenora but in all of our schools) was held and was incredibly successful. Thank you to those staff involved, the Kindergarten teams across the area, and thank you to vice-principal Shannon Bailey (Valleyview PS) for the coordination of such a wide-scale event.

I respectfully call on all staff, elementary and secondary alike, to promote our registration week for Kindergarten programming, in all KP schools. It is in our interests to talk this up and to vigorously advertise in our communities, arenas, grocery stores, restaurants, and social gatherings when the opportunities arise. And why wouldn’t you? Our Kindergarten programming under the leadership of our Kindergarten teachers and Early Childhood Educators together; and with Education Assistants working with our most vulnerable children alongside, create formidable teaching teams anywhere and indisputably. Thank you to all of you from all of us.

However, and back to the point of discussion, the NorWOSSA actions which somewhat centred around events at all of our secondary schools and originally out of Kenora, were as much about taking a stand, taking the high road, and ensuring any who we choose to compete with, abide by and follow the rules established for all us; not just some of us. In the days ahead there will be communication in the media and across our schools through our administration about the work that we, and more importantly you do in every one of our schools, and at the system level. Your administration will be able to share with you the action we have taken at the senior level in regards to students with Special Education, Aboriginal children, NorWOSSA athletics, and done so now at the provincial level, at the Director level, and at the local level. And…I encourage you to talk with your school administrator to have them share with you the details of what has transpired over the last few weeks and recently last week in Toronto, after having apprised them myself on several matters.

The rules of engagement, whether it be in sports or how we treat kids or enrol students, are rules for everyone and one system does not get to opt out of them. In the weeks ahead we will work hard and closely with others to clarify what the rules ares, and that all abide by them. I am proud of the KPDSB secondary administration, and especially proud of the KPDSB Athletic Directors who espouse fairness and competition with development of young people in mind. Thank you to Mike Lalonde and Geoff Zilkans (DHS), Janine Lavoie ( QEDHS), Darrin Bausch (RLDHS), Reg McDonald (BBSS) and George Lotsios (IHS).

I am proud of you, and I am proud of our coaches and our students.

I have been inspired by my staff, in a way that I have had difficulty putting into words, not unusual for me. But our staff are talking about what we are doing, they are talking about it in person, and they are talking about us on social media. They are speaking up about specialty programs like the new Grades 1-8 Hockey Academy Program at Sioux Mountain Public School with Steve Dumonski, or the Aboriginal Mentor Coach effort at Dryden High School with Kieran McMonagle. In short our staff, are speaking up and they are promoting us in an unprecedented way, and what we are seeing is good; it feels very good.

There is much to extrapolate from this blog, as it is about tough leadership and the requiem for making difficult decisions. We have been through a fair bit these last months, but it is over, and we have prevailed; adversity often bringing the best out of people. And now I ask for more out of you: having spoken with so many of you in the first several months about the Efficacy Review, and the impact on staff, we now require the voice of front-line staff. As a result, I am now inviting each school and board office in this organization to submit one person to represent your school and staff to participate in a staff/teacher Efficacy Working Group with me, meeting once a month. I will rely on your voice to help me act on the school and teacher efficacy needs and associated with concrete goals, and I assure you we will meet those goals. Please consider putting your name forward, by speaking with your school principal or vice-principal, and let’s now work together to deliver on needs that impact our school staff, using the Efficacy Review as our guide.

As I prepare to close, I want to share a passage a friend and colleague shared with me earlier this month, as I was responding to media requests that “challenged” our work with Aboriginal children and communities. Ironically, while I had to respond to serious statements about the KPDSB from one member of the Treaty 3 community, others did feel that our work was so valuable that as Director, I received a beautiful sweater jacket as a gift from several First Nation chiefs who did believe our rich history in helping Aboriginal students achieve and better their lives, simply reinforcing our already strong relationships with many Aboriginal and Métis families.

Before I end with this passage, I leave you my regular request, but this time more impassioned and more emphatically, ask questions of myself, or your leaders, and speak up. If you feel you have something to say about the KPDSB, please…..email and reach out to me as I ask of you. February is around the corner!

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Theodore Roosevelt “Citizenship in a Republic” (1910)

Take care, and if I can be of any assistance, please ask,

Sean

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2014 Reflections and Wishes

Happy Holidays Everyone!!

I will simply start this last blog of 2014, by thanking everyone in the organization, from custodians, to early childhood educators, to administrative assistants, teachers, principals, parents, elders, and of course the kids themselves, for a memorable and overwhelmingly successful year! I think 2014 will be remembered as a year in the KPDSB that saw great change, greater impact, and accomplishment for our schools, those that serve them and are served by them everyday.

Thank you.

As I write this last post, I can share with the organization that since September I have now been able to visit, and meet with every single school and staff in the entire region known as KPDSB; we even brought both Board office staffs together last week to meet with them together too. It has been at times, challenging (driving our northern highways can make this so), informative, but more than anything rewarding and extremely validating. I have enjoyed my visits to all of your classrooms, your staff-rooms and libraries, your assemblies, and our meetings focused on Efficacy and reform. I hope by now, that when you read comments from me about efficacy, and change, you will have a better understanding of what it is we are talking about at the system level. And of course if you have more questions, you can always email and ask me! However, the one thing that the Efficacy staff visits have also been and represent is “investment”.

As I sit back and reflect on the hundreds of conversations with staff, I have come to appreciate how important it is that we, who work at the system and senior level, remain connected and in sync with what is happening every day in our classrooms with our teachers and educational assistants. While I will admit that getting to every school in three months was a slight undertaking, I have always felt that it was an investment in our system, our schools, and in you. I have come to believe, like any good investment, the return will be greater, and that the return on the Efficacy visits will be ten-fold. I believe this to be true. Why??

Because the last several months, have not been just about efficacy, have they? They have been about empowerment, openness, challenging the status quo, getting better to become the best, motivating and activating new thinking, new beginnings, and ultimately about change and leadership. It has been about flattening the organization, so that each one of us is not just colleagues in name, but in importance, that the traditional hierarchy of doing business is removed. It is about seeing the same sense of value in two new teachers at Beaver Brae in Tyler Greenwood and Brooks Meija, as we do with experienced teachers at Dryden High School like Todd Desaultels and Rick Lindquist. It is about recognizing the incredibly hard work that folks like Mike Lalonde do on behalf of all student-athletes for NorWosaa, or what Suzanne McIntosh does with her vocal musical group “Good Fortune”. It is about the seeing the same value in the support that Deb Liedtke provides as an educational assistant at Red Lake District High School, as new teacher Brennan Flickinger provides his students at Crolancia in Pickle Lake….and as Caryl Hron provides school principals as the Superintendent of Education. We are integral to the success of each other, and we motivate those beside and around us; in our work though this is particularly rewarding because a lot of “those” around us, are students, young people looking for someone to inspire them and in turn inspiring us with their stories of resiliency.

I have also come to the realization over the last number of months, that leadership is very important, and that true leadership is tough. Being a leader, can be very difficult, because making decisions can be easy to criticize and judge; that taking a stand isn’t always popular and that taking the high road also means taking the hardest and silent road. But it also is the right road, and I myself am reminded daily by staff in schools, it is what defines the KPDSB, it is what marks our organization, and it is what people have to come to expect from us and from me. To make tough decisions, to take a stand, and to represent our interests and the interests of our kids. I find that as we enter the holiday recess, I am motivated by many of you, and in the same breath continuously humbled by your commitment to our organization. As I commented to our new Board of trustees recently at an orientation, our strength collectively is our people, and I believe that.

2014….well for us in the KPDSB meant many additions to our schools, especially with kindergarten and special education programming in mind. We moved into our new Board office in Kenora downtown and overlooking the lake, and we were visited by the Assistant Deputy, Deputy Minister, and Minster of Education, and all within one month. No other Board can say this (by the way, you need to check out the Minister of Education’s annual Christmas card to all school boards….there is a KPDSB flavour to it!!!). We had improvements in all of our student achievement measurements in Grades 3,6, and 9; and we installed video-conferencing equipment in every single school, keeping people off the roads, in classrooms and principals in schools. And oh yeah, we also announced that we had been successful in securing the funding for a brand new $30 million state-of-the-art high school in Sioux Lookout!! Yes it has been quite a year.

On the personal front, some of you became parents, some of you became known as “no longer bachelors: Jason McMillan”, some of you became grandparents, some of you were diagnosed with cancer, and some of you are beating cancer. And you put kids first throughout all of it; so again thank you.

As I close, I want to share with you, that while 2014 will be hard to top, we will start the new year with the same renewed energy and focus that we started this current year with, and I encourage you all to feel empowered and to take a hold of your learning and your own personal leadership. I predict that we will face tough decisions in 2015, and that we will face challenges in the new year; but in doing so we take the approach that we neither seek nor avoid our challenges and problems. We deal with them.

I wish everyone of you and your families to get the “long winter’s nap” that we hear about at this time of year, rest, and enjoy those around you as you, like myself contemplate the year was, and the one that will be.

Here is to an optimistic and hopeful 2015,

 Sean

November Post

Hi Everyone!

Have you ever noticed that during the late fall days and weeks that make up the latter part of October and early November, the sky at times turns into an amazing blue hue, with colors that can be nothing short of spectacular?

It becomes even more noticeable and even omnipresent, when you travel as much as I do within the Board’s reaches on our highways and you find yourself looking ahead into the horizon. On several occasions in the past couple of weeks, I found myself driving along Highway 17 from Dryden towards Kenora, under a heavy cloud cover of grey only to look westward where the sky opened up as a definitive line separated a deep blue from the clouds. I also found myself during these drives home, thinking and reflecting on many things, most of which I doubt would interest you, but on a couple of thoughts, most definitely I would speculate.

October and early November have been incredibly busy months for many of us, you, your families, your colleagues, your principals and administration, and absolutely for us in Senior Administration. For myself, I have probably and admittedly in hindsight, overextended myself a wee bit by trying to fulfill my commitment of meeting with every single staff in the system to discuss the Efficacy Review. Over the course of the last three weeks, I have managed to make it to Upsala, Ignace, Pickle Lake, all of our schools in Red Lake and Ear Falls, a few more schools in Kenora and in Dryden, and of course back and forth to Sioux Lookout on a couple of occasions. In total, I have now been to 17 of our schools, and have the remaining ones in Dryden and Kenora to go, before calling the “Efficacy Tour” complete. The visits and staff discussions have been as diverse as the Board is itself, and have been more than productive, sometimes challenging, but always a learning experience. I have also been working with the school administration team across the system to continue to impress the belief that Efficacy can mean change, and can make us better. But on this last point, is where my greatest learning and candidly, my greatest challenge of recent, has emerged.

I should add that after the last Efficacy email that I sent out, I did receive a criticism (I will call it friendly and perhaps even constructive) that I should not be so candid, perhaps even so open with staff. I have thought about that, and I have to tell you, while I appreciate the feedback, I disagree. So with this in mind, I want to tell you what has been stirring me; and in sharing this with you, I also invite your comments and thoughts too.

The Keewatin-Patricia District School Board has prided itself, on being a Board that is home to everyone, and a Board that can serve everyone. We have gone to great lengths, spent energy and much capital on celebrating our diversity and our challenges. I suspect the latter comment, because we have achieved so much when you consider how big our challenges are, specifically when it comes to the wide-ranging needs of our kids. We have celebrated, and in fact promoted our work in Special Education, Aboriginal Education, and even as recently as last week, our work in FASD. We have received national recognition for our work, and frequently are called upon to share our success stories with provincial leaders and other Boards, because as we have often identified, our work and our achievement when you look at where we start with our kids is truly nothing short of heroic. And yet, and for myself….a personal struggle, accepting that some in our communities might look at our accomplishments and agree it is noble work, but feel it is not the environment for their kids?

Recently, Susanne raised this question to me, that is “Can celebrating our challenges at times work against us?”, and while she and I may not always agree on the color of the sky, I do respect and value her opinion and experience a great deal. I also know that she, like all of my Senior Administration would only do and accept their best work for the good of the organization. So when she raised this question, I admit, I had to struggle with the notion that some in our communities might turn away from the KPDSB because we are a system for all, and include all. To complicate further my own internal questioning, is like many of you the fact that I too am from the North, and that we live, work and play in the very communities we have grown up in. The fact that a few of my own lifelong friends could consider looking away from the KPDSB because we have many different students and challenges, remains a very difficult concept to accept, to be honest. The KPDSB remains the biggest school board in Northwestern Ontario, outside of Thunder Bay, and is the face of public education, that I will not concede anything on. If you say you believe in equity and fairness, you need to live it, because talk is cheap. In other words, if you actually believe in all students then you accept all students, and that this stance is not merely a punch line.

What am I talking about? Perhaps the best example that I heard in the last couple of weeks, was when I was told of a situation of a new family who had moved to one of our communities. The family was looking at schools, and when they heard that the school closest to their home had an “FASD” dedicated program, felt that it would be an environment similar to contagion that they could not have their child in. As if to suggest FASD is a contracted disease, as opposed to the brain impediment that it is. I could rail against ignorance in our area or put the spotlight on racism and bigotry, or I could reflect on what this is telling me and all of us. And that is we need to work harder to get our message out, we cannot be nonchalant about our schools and we cannot under any circumstances take anything for granted.

We need to support our system.

We need to be champions of our schools! I have challenged staff everywhere I go to look at Efficacy, to question the status quo, to look at us from a different perspective and asked you all to consider how we can do things, a little or even perhaps a lot differently? If I can go school to school to school, and door to door to door, then I need to believe at the very least that every single staff will take ownership of their school too.

When I think back to my recent Efficacy Staff meeting at Golden Learning Center, Michelle Parrish and Kathi Fawthrop asked me to consider the following: if we are asking teachers to look at students from a growth mindset, then can we also not look at our teachers from a growth mindset as well?? Michelle, we certainly can and we will.

We will do better, and efficacy is all about believing we can do better, and that anything is possible, if we believe it to be right. Efficacy is also about asking tough questions, like can we compromise our beliefs that all students have a right to be in our schools, regardless of their background, their race, their needs, or their family circumstances? Efficacy also requires, as I have learned first-hand, tough true-grit leadership too. I am glad Susanne asked me the question, because it only reinforced my belief we are a system for all, and on that point I will never waver, not ever. It matters not to me, how challenged our kids are, they are human beings and they are the best their parents have got; we will never close our doors or send them down the street.

At my recent Ignace School Efficacy visit, Kevin Goudie surprised me with his comments; not because Kevin is opposed to expressing his views, but because of what he said. He remarked that we have been in very difficult circumstances where the environment had been extremely tough, and when you might visualize us as being at opposite sides of the table. But he also commented, that never, ever did our position about children and helping students waver, even in the face of extremely difficult conversations. He made my ride home that night, seem to fly by, as I clipped along the highway trying to get home to our youngest son Tristan’s birthday supper. I can tell you Kevin’s comments as have many of yours over the last few months, reenergized my belief and faith in the pursuit of public education and uncompromising support of KPDSB.

I am asking you to give of yourselves in support of the KPDSB, and more specifically your own schools. I remain steadfastly committed to my promise to you that I will never ask of you to give more than I am myself am prepared to give, and I am asking you to lead efficacy by example, by being strong and supportive of your colleagues and schools.

And for myself, I do plan on trying to slow down, for a little bit anyways, but I have a few more Efficacy visits to go.

Please think about what I have asked of you, and I encourage you, to as always, give me your thoughts.

Take care,

Sean